Poor countries face a mounting catastrophe fuelled by inflation and debt

A food market on May 10 in Douala, in the central African country of Cameroon, where food inflation is causing hardship. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Before war ravaged Yemen, Mr Walid Al-Ahdal did not worry about feeding his children. At his hometown near the Red Sea, his family grew corn, raised goats and relied on their own cow for milk.

But for the last four years, after fighting forced them to flee, their home has been a tent at a camp with 9,000 other families outside the capital city of Sanaa. Mr Al-Ahdal has struggled to buy adequate food with his wages as a janitor at a hospital.

Now another war - this one more than 2,000 miles (3,200km) away - has upended their lives again. Food prices are soaring. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the cost of wheat has more than doubled, while milk has climbed by two-thirds.

On many nights, Mr Al-Ahdal, 25, has nothing to feed his 2-year-old daughter and his three boys, ages 3, 5 and 6. He consoles them with tea and sends them to bed.

"My heart hurts every time my child looks for food that is not there," Mr Al-Ahdal said. "But what can I do?"

The hunger gnawing at families in war-torn countries such as Yemen highlights a broader crisis confronting billions of people in the world's less-affluent economies as the consequences of Russia's assault on Ukraine are compounded by other challenges: the continuing pandemic, a global tightening of credit and a slowdown in China, the second-largest economy after the United States.

"It's like wildfires in all directions," said Professor Jayati Ghosh, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "This is much bigger than after the global financial crisis. Everything is stacked against the low- and middle-income countries."

The most direct repercussions are seen in the rising prices of cooking fuel, fertiliser and staple foods like wheat, disrupting agriculture and threatening nutrition in much of the world.

Sanctions imposed on Russia, a major oil and gas exporter, have constrained the supply of energy, sending prices skyward and limiting economic growth, especially in countries heavily dependent on imports.

High energy prices are at the centre of diminished expectations for global economic growth, now estimated at 3.6 per cent this year compared with 6.1 per cent last year, according to a forecast from the International Monetary Fund.

More than 14 million people are now on the brink of starvation in the Horn of Africa, according to the International Rescue Committee - the result of a terrible drought combined with the pandemic and shortfalls of grains from Russia and Ukraine. The two countries are collectively the source for one-fourth of the world's exports of wheat.

Last week, as India banned exports of most of its wheat, concerns deepened. India is the world's second-largest wheat producer and holds abundant reserves.

The war in Ukraine threatens to impede the humanitarian response, lifting by as much as 16 per cent the prices of components like peanuts that are blended into a therapeutic paste used to treat children facing life-threatening levels of malnutrition, Unicef warned Monday (May 16).

This catastrophe is unfolding as the pandemic continues to assail health systems, depleting government resources, and as the Federal Reserve and other central banks raise interest rates to choke off inflation. That is prompting investors to abandon lower-income countries while moving funds into less-risky assets in wealthy economies.

This tidal shift in the flow of money has lifted the US dollar while pushing down the value of currencies from India to South Africa to Brazil, making their imports more expensive. Tighter credit is also increasing borrowing costs for heavily indebted governments.

Not least, China, long the engine of growth for many countries, has become a significant source of drag. As the Chinese government extends lockdowns to enforce its zero-Covid policy, the result is weaker demand for raw materials, parts and finished goods shipped to China from around the globe.

"I look at a perfect storm developing in places like Yemen and many other places around the world," said Mr Philippe Duamelle, the Unicef representative for Yemen. "Families have terrible choices to make."

Not enough bread

Motorcycle taxi driver Michael Moki in Douala says the price of bread has risen while the portions have become smaller. PHOTO: NYTIMES

On a fiercely hot morning in Cameroon's largest city, Douala, Mr Michael Moki, a motorcycle taxi driver, pulled up to a glass case containing a scattering of bread rolls.

A jovial man with a ready laugh, Mr Moki, 34, ordered 500 Central African francs' (S$1.11) worth of rolls - breakfast for his family of five. When the vendor handed him the bag, the smile fell from his face.

"Your bread gets smaller every day, and the price increases," he complained to the young man behind the counter. "Do you think I can eat all of this and get full?" "The price of flour has gone up," the vendor replied.

This kind of exchange has become commonplace in markets across Africa and parts of Asia.

The fighting in Ukraine has prompted farmers in Ukraine to flee their land, while Russia has blockaded Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea - vital conduits for exports. Last week, the World Food Programme warned that the shutdowns of the ports threatened to worsen severe food insecurity in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Russia and Ukraine supply all the wheat imported by Somalia and Benin and at least two-thirds of the supply reaching Tanzania, Senegal, the Congo, Sudan and Egypt, according to research from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Globally, export prices for wheat and corn soared more than one-fifth in the month after Russia invaded Ukraine, according to the World Food Programme.

Mr Michael Moki has breakfast with his family at their home in Douala, Cameroon, on May 10, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Some economists accuse multi-national agribusiness of exploiting the chaos caused by the pandemic and the war to lift prices beyond any connection to supply and demand. Prof Ghosh, the economist, cited evidence that financial speculation is driving food prices higher.

In April, speculators were responsible for 72 per cent of the buying activity on the Paris wheat market, up from 25 per cent before the pandemic, according to data analysed by Lighthouse Reports, a European journalism collaborative.

Many poor countries now confront an uncomfortable choice: increasing spending to aid their populations while adding to their debts, or imposing budget austerity and courting social conflict.

Last week, public rage over rapid inflation amid a spiralling debt crisis in Sri Lanka triggered the downfall of the government. The risks of upheaval look dire in Tunisia, Ghana, South Africa and Morocco, Oxford Economics warned in a recent report.

Culling the herd

Food is distributed in Islamabad, Pakistan, on April 6, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Sencer Solakoglu, a dairy farmer in Turkey, is getting squeezed by forces beyond his control. The prices of animal feed like hay, corn and alfalfa - much of it imported from Russia and Ukraine - have doubled and tripled in recent months.

Yet the government, fearing public anger over inflation, has pressured farmers to forgo price increases, limiting Mr Solakoglu's ability to recoup his costs.

Turkish households, battered by a long-running economic crisis, have cut back on milk, slashing his sales by roughly half.

This is how Mr Solakoglu, whose farm sits outside the Turkish city of Bursa, found himself culling his dairy herd by 200 in recent months.

"We slaughtered every cow that produced less than 30 kilograms of milk per day," he said.

These sorts of grim calculations have become routine in Turkey, a country that has gained intimate familiarity with economic distress.

After the global financial crisis of 2008, central banks in major economies like the United States and Europe dropped interest rates to nearly zero to spur growth. As international investors sought better returns, they piled into so-called emerging markets, accepting higher risks in exchange for greater rewards.

Mr Vanderley de Melo Pereira (right) with family members at home in Rocinha, a slum neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Turkey's strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged his cronies to avail themselves of international borrowing to finance enormous construction projects that kept the economy growing.

By 2017, investors fretted that the staggering debts held by Turkish companies posed the risk of defaults. They dumped the Turkish lira, pushing its value down roughly three-fourths by the end of last year.

That was the story before Russia's invasion of Ukraine and before central banks around the globe began raising interest rates.

By April, the lira was falling anew, and Turkey's inflation rate was running at nearly 70 per cent - its worst mark in two decades.

Impossible debts

Mr Walid Al-Ahdal with his children inside their tent at a camp the displaced, outside Sanaa, Yemen, on March 17, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Two years ago, when Ms Rubab Zafar and her husband, Mr Muhammad Ali, left their village in rural Pakistan for new lives in Islamabad, they were full of optimism. "There were no jobs in the village," said Ms Zafar, 31. "Islamabad is a big city, and we thought there would be some opportunity for us here."

Instead, they have suffered the grind of a country grappling with impossible debts and downward mobility.

Ms Zafar recently lost her babysitting job, while securing occasional part-time stints. Her husband works for a ride-hailing app. Collectively, they earn about 25,000 rupees a month (S$177), which barely covers the rent for their single room in a working-class neighbourhood.

They are behind on their electrical bill, placing them in the same position as the Pakistani government, now in talks with the International Monetary Fund for an extension on a US$6 billion (S$8.3 billion) package of loans.

Since 2016, Pakistan's external debt payments have swelled to 38 per cent of government revenue from about 9 per cent, according to data tabulated by Debt Justice, an advocacy organisation in England.

Debt payments have absorbed money that might otherwise support people like Ms Zafar. Several times, she has applied for a cash grant, only to be turned away without explanation.

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